Restoring Trust in a Polarized Age

Article

Americans are finding it harder and harder to trust one another. Social trust in the United States, our trust in our fellow citizens, has fallen dramatically. In the early 1970s, around half of Americans said that most people can be trusted. Today that figure is less than a third. Political trust, trust in government and democracy, has fallen steeply as well. Throughout the 1960s, over 70 percent of Americans said they trusted government in Washington always or most of the time. By the early 1990s, that number had fallen below 30 percent, and after a brief rebound in the early 2000s, it has collapsed to 17 percent as of 2019. More troublesome still is that Americans reporting no confidence at all in their na­tional government doubled from around 14 percent between 1995 and 2011 to 28 percent in 2017.

We see a similarly disturbing pattern in partisan distrust. In 2017, around 70 percent of Republicans said they distrusted anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton for president; likewise, around 70 percent of Democrats said they distrusted people who voted for Donald Trump. People not only distrust politicians from other parties, they distrust anyone who votes for the other party, that is, many millions of people. In our politically polarized age, we trust each other less simply based on how we vote.

Worse, distrust is giving way to darker impulses, like hatred. From 1980, when measurement began, some members of each major political party reported that they hated the other one. But they used to be far fewer in number—between 10 and 20 percent of each party. In 2000, something changed. Now as many as half of the members of each party despise the other party. It is unclear how a democracy can remain stable under these conditions. We surely do not trust those we despise, and we certainly would not like to be ruled by them, even temporarily.

Worst of all is a Pew poll taken in 2018 that breaks down trust levels by age. The most trusting Americans are those over 65, whereas the least trusting by far are the youngest. In 2018, around 29 percent of Americans over 65 said that most people cannot be trusted, which is sad, but 60 percent of Americans 18 to 29 agree. And one thing we know from the trust research is that trust levels tend to harden in early adulthood. We face a low-trust future.

Declining Trust – The Dismal Consequences

Eroding social and political trust comes with grave costs. Falling social trust can undermine democracy, economic growth, economic equality, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities; it can foment tribalism and bigotry, weaken our capacity to form relations of friendship and love with others, and even negatively affect personal psychological well-being. Falling political trust makes it hard to form effective public policy, can threaten democratic government and polit­ical stability, and can generate excessive inequalities of power, corruption, and violations of basic rights.

These phenomena are not merely abstract; they affect us viscerally. Recall your experience watching the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. As I’m sure you remember, Christine Blasey Ford claimed that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, accusations Kavanaugh fiercely denied. You were surely on one side, absolutely convinced you were correct (He’s lying! No, she’s lying!), and you weren’t alone. Your friends probably agreed with you. Your family too. Now recall how you felt. In that moment, you may have been right, but you were also polarized. And you distrusted not only politicians on the other side but supporters of those politicians. Distrust and polarization occupy us socially and emotionally; this is no mere intellectual problem.

We can see other consequences of falling trust as well. Arguably, one recent effect of lower political trust is norm erosion. Democracies can only function if they are supported by norms that serve as “the soft guardrails of democracy preventing day-to-day political competition from devolving into a no-holds-barred conflict.”[1] We need tolerance and institutional forbearance to make de­mocracy work; otherwise, we cannot keep political losers integrated into the political system. Perhaps the most unusual and troubling way in which President Trump differs from previous presidents is his deliberate erosion of norms.

Trump’s temporary decision to deny funding to Ukraine to compel it to inves­tigate one of his domestic political rivals, arguably with the intent to boost his chance of re-election, severely erodes norms that prohibit using state power to interfere with free elections. Such actions suggest that the future will lead “to more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institu­tional warfare— in other words, democracy without solid guardrails.” One might see the Republican decision to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the 2020 election as another case of norm erosion, with the Democrat threat of court-packing as an attempt to respond in kind. Here again we are not musing about an abstract intellectual issue, but encountering a real problem that we can follow on television or the internet every hour of the day.

Falling trust creates even deeper problems, including in how we form our deepest beliefs in other domains. Partisan identities increasingly drive the for­mation of other social commitments, such as religious affiliation. Indeed, today par­tisan affiliation is more stable than religious affiliation in the United States. With nonpolitical identities in decline, partisan identities capture them, lining other identities up to help a political party defeat its opposition. For people who value these alternative identities, this is deeply troubling. Politics is swallowing everything else.

Restoring Trust – Hope through Reforms

My review of the data supports the argument that we can only break polarization by restoring declining trust, and that only liberal democratic institutions can restore trust and do so justly. It looks like increased freedom of association, the use of markets, social welfare programs, constitutional democracy, and fair and free elections can do a lot to restore trust and so to contain the damaging effects of polarization.

Here I understand liberal institutions as those that protect a broad range of individual and group liberties from interference by other citizens and by government officials. Think here of the bill of rights, which is a paradigmatically liberal document.

Constitutional democracy seems to create the most social and political trust, with markets in second, social insurance in third, freedom of association in fourth, and electoral democracy in last place. But they all sustain trust, and they do so justly. For this reason, liberal politics has the internal resources to save us from a downward spiral of increasing polarization and decreasing trust. Liberal rights practices can increase social and political trust and dampen partisan divergence; we can resolve the distrust and polarization doom loop without going outside of the liberal policy toolkit.

The hope then is increasing trust will take a large bite out of polari­zation, since people will become more trusting of others and of government when the other party is in power. Issue-based polarization and sorting become much less problematic under conditions of trust, since people will see those who offer different policies as persons of goodwill, even if they dis­agree with their political agenda. The democratic rotation of power can continue with much less friction.

Restoring Trust – Check Your Polarization

The challenge is how to get the process of reform in motion. That requires something of each of us. First, we must fight our own distrust of our political opponents. Otherwise, we are likely to interpret everything they do as evil and wicked and take that as further evidence that we were right about them all along.

To begin to trust, we must reflect on our own intellectual limitations and adopt an attitude of humility. None of us have all the answers, and every one of us is likely to be wrong on some important political issues. The other side just might help us get at the truth, at least from time to time.

Second, we must allow ourselves to recognize that our nonpolitical interactions with our political opponents are positive and give us reasons to trust them. Perhaps you are hermetically sealed in your ideological bubble, but if not, you probably regularly interact with some people whose politics differ from your own. You may not even have noticed that their politics are different. And the ways they have treated you have given you no grounds to mistrust them.

Third, we should try to take a global perspective on our problems. Few developed liberal democratic societies face our levels of di­vergence and distrust, at least to the same degree. And finally, we can also look at our own past for evidence that things can get better, because matters were not always so grim. Our condition is not terminal.

Restoring Trust – Resisting Populism

But here’s what won’t work: populism, right-wing or left-wing. Right-wing populism proposes a kind of American nationalism that has served as a basis for social unity in the past, typically during wars. Nationalism indeed creates so­cial and political trust by defining the nation against some enemy or threat. Wars bind us together, and those bonds help our societies survive. You can see this just by tracking the spikes in social and political trust over time, especially the declines starting in the early 1970s. Arguably, World War II was trust-creating, whereas Vietnam was trust-reducing. The right-wing populist can argue that stoking nationalist sentiment in the right ways will create WWII effects rather than Vietnam effects.

But we don’t want to base trust on constant warfare. And in times of peace, nationalist leaders tend to search for a new foe, typically an enemy within the nation, people who do not fit the interpretation of national identity held by those with political power. These efforts may increase trust among persons who fit the nationalist’s defini­tion of the nation, but they will decrease trust between the nationalist’s in-group and his out-group. This is not the way to create trust among all Americans.

When a US president leads a public chant to send a female, Muslim congress­woman of color back to her country of origin, it may create fellow feeling among the president’s supporters, but it frustrates trust among people with different genders, ethnicities, and faiths.

Left-wing populism also carries dangers for trust. It will not sow distrust between races or between immigrants and citizens, but it too relies on trust-threatening tribalism. Left-populists often demonize more privileged members of society, as opposed to simply calling attention to inequities and the reforms required to reduce them. And in some cases, left-wing populists denounce people who aren’t especially privileged, like white working-class males without college degrees and very religious citizens. These are trust-reducing practices.

Along similar lines, left-wing populism bases social unity on a quite large government with great power to interfere with people’s economic lives. Here I am focused not on policies populists shared with traditional progressives like universal healthcare, but systematic reorganization of the economy, as we find in the Green New Deal. The ostensible aim of the Green New Deal is noble: reducing carbon emissions, creating jobs, and ending social oppression. But when the Green New Deal gets beyond vague goals, the means are worrisome, such as upgrading “all existing buildings in the United States” to achieve energy efficiency, when far less intrusive proposals like a carbon tax could have salutary effects with far less government intrusion. Further, however necessary it is to move to renewable energy, moving so quickly will require a great deal of intrusion and alteration of people’s lives as well. Once we ask who is going to enforce these changes and how, the massive level of interference becomes even clearer.

This approach to economic policy reduces economic growth more than more moderate policies, such as carbon taxes, and rebalancing energy subsidies towards renewable energy. It also allows bureaucrats to distribute economic gains to well-connected lobbyists and interest groups, creating enormous political corruption. Left-wing pop­ulism, therefore, is likely to hurt social and political trust too, as it arguably has in Latin America.

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen argues that “to call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.” But if I am right, we really do need more liberalism. If we protect central liberal rights and support those who exercise them, we can overcome the mis­trust and conflict that some claim liberalism engenders by nature.

I am alive to the non-liberal concern that liberalism as an ideology has deleterious social effects. A liberal ethos can become sectarian and authori­tarian in beating up on those with more traditional social and political views, and it can often be socially atomizing, destroying older social bonds that are hard to replace. But I do not defend liberalism as an ideology or ethos; I instead defend liberal rights practices, and in my view liberalism’s contemporary critics have not shown that we can only have liberal institutions if we have a liberal ethos.

Embrace Liberal Civilization

We should be proud of liberal civilization, and we have good reason to hope that liberal orders have the internal resources to end the cold civil war we are currently waging against one another. May we soon return to the irritating, exhausting, and deeply flawed politics of liberal democracy. Through liberal reforms, we can, paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, turn our hysterical, polarized misery into common political unhappiness.

Kevin Vallier is associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University. In 2018, he published a whitepaper on “Social and Political Trust” for Knight Foundation. His new book, “Trust in a Polarized Age”, will be released in early November 2020.


[1] Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, How Democracies Die, Penguin, p. 101.

Image (top) by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash.